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Johnnie Tillmon-Blackston helped organize one of the earliest grassroots efforts in the nation, later becoming the first woman chairperson of the now-defunct National Welfare Rights Organization. Under her leadership, the NWRO represented thousands of poor and Black residents across the country.

The welfare reformer was born Johnnie Lee Percy on this day in 1926 in the town of Scott, Arkansas. In the late fifties, she relocated to California as a divorced single mother of six. She became an activist as a union employee at a Compton laundromat, but had to leave that job to care for her children. After that, she sought public assistance.

Tillmon-Blackston grew tried of the raids performed by housing officials hoping to catch welfare violators in the Nickerson Garden housing projects in Watts, California where she lived. She began organizing women in the projects and launched the first of her movements to help fellow welfare recipients understand their rights.

She became the NWRO’s first chairwoman and later its executive director in 1972, moving to Washington to continue the organization’s work. She aligned her fight with the burgeoning feminist movement, and appealed to white citizens, the largest recipients of welfare, to raise their voices as well.

When funding for the group ended, the NWRO folded, but Tillmon-Blackston continued her work on the behalf of welfare recipients in California and nationwide.

Tillmon-Blackston passed in 1995 at the age of 69.

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